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The State

Senate Panel Backs Zettel for State Job

The Democrat-led committee's approval of the Republican as consumer affairs director is a setback for some watchdog groups.

August 12, 2004|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A Democrat-led Senate panel on Wednesday approved Charlene Zettel as the state's top consumer regulator over the objections of critics who assailed her voting record when she was in the Assembly.

Zettel told lawmakers she would be a forceful advocate as director of California's Department of Consumer Affairs, which regulates 230 professions, including contractors and auto-repair shops.

"With my heart and soul I have a commitment to protecting the consumers of this state," said Zettel, a Republican who represented San Diego until she lost a state Senate primary in 2002.

The unanimous vote was a setback for several consumer watchdog groups, which have been arguing that many of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's appointments tilt too far toward business interests. They argued that having pro-consumer officials was particularly important if Schwarzenegger adopts a proposal from his California Performance Review to merge the consumer protection and commerce departments into one agency -- potentially heightening the inevitable tension between the two interests.

"The new director of the Department of Consumer Affairs has no history of protecting consumers and in fact as an elected official fought against consumer rights on behalf of business interests," said Doug Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a Santa Monica watchdog group.

"I think that Ms. Zettel may make business licensing more efficient, but we need someone who's going to stand up and take on businesses that are putting out dangerous products or conducting shoddy operations or overcharging customers."

Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, testified that in 2000 Zettel had voted against a bill that made it easier for car owners to return defective vehicles. In 2000, the Consumer Federation of California said Zettel voted for only 11% of key consumer protection issues it measured, including votes against measures that concerned child-car seats, the Northridge earthquake and credit cards.

At Wednesday's hearing before the Senate Rules Committee, Zettel, who has been the acting director since March, tried to present an alternative rating put together by department staff members that analyzed how her votes comported with the official position of the department.

But Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) brusquely dismissed her effort, saying most of the bills were probably routine housekeeping matters and not contested fights. Zettel later said she had scored 75% in the department's rating.

Zettel still faces a full vote before the full Senate, but Wednesday's 4-0 vote gave a clear indication she will be confirmed. The job pays $123,255 a year.

Zettel received strong endorsements from a number of San Diego law enforcement officials, including Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis.

They said Zettel had worked hard in the Assembly to protect consumers. Democratic legislators who had worked with her, including Sens. Gloria Romero of Los Angeles and Dede Alpert of San Diego, also praised her as open-minded and a person of integrity.

Alpert suggested that Zettel had cast some of her anti-consumer votes to satisfy conservatives in her district.

Zettel declined to endorse that theory after the hearing but stressed that she viewed her new job as having a different responsibility to uphold consumer laws.

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